A federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday accuses Sonoma County correctional deputies of assaulting 20 inmates over a more than five-hour period of continuous beatings in which masked guards allegedly marched cell to cell, punching and kicking their terrified captives, who begged them to stop and screamed in pain.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, seeks unspecified damages from the county and Sheriff Steve Freitas as well as the appointment of a special monitor to oversee use-of-force incidents at the jail and report findings to the court for three years.
The Sheriff’s Office issued a statement Monday evening categorically denying “the outrageous and inflammatory accusations delineated in the complaint.”
“There is absolutely no basis to the allegations of torture, sadistic actions, and patterns of egregious constitutional violations or human suffering,” according to the statement issued by sheriff’s Sgt. Cecile Focha.
The lawsuit represents the latest claims of civil rights violations by Sonoma County deputies and comes amid heightened scrutiny of inmate treatment following the August beating death of a mentally ill Santa Clara County inmate, allegedly at the hands of three guards.
Lawyers for plaintiffs Marqus Martinez, 28, of Santa Rosa and Dan Banks, 23, of Petaluma allege the abuse meted out at the Sonoma County jail is encouraged by department policy, which they claim promotes a culture of violence among correctional deputies amounting to cruel and unusual punishment.
“This is like a horror movie,” said Santa Rosa attorney Izaak Schwaiger, one of three lawyers handling the case. “And we have reason to believe this was not an isolated incident.”
Freitas did not return repeated calls Monday seeking comment. Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker, who oversees the 1,100-inmate jail, also did not respond to calls.
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin said she learned of the allegations Monday but had no other details.
“I really can’t give you a reaction,” Gorin said. “At this point, I don’t have any information to comment on.”
The suit stems from a May 28 incident in a special module reserved for inmates deemed high-security risks, including gang members, Schwaiger said.
Focha said jail personnel did respond that day to “a seemingly coordinated mass disturbance by inmates” that was interfering with safe operation of the facility and the security of staff and other inmates. The incident will be reviewed further in response to the complaint, she said.
It appears neither the Sheriff’s Office nor the county made any public statements about the disruption in the jail at the time of the May 28 incident.
The suit alleges the events began when deputies conducting the morning “soap call” exchanged angry words with inmate Giovanni Montes, 27, of Santa Rosa, who had refused to wake up because he was on heavy medication.
The argument became physical when guards opened his door, threw him to the ground, pummeled him and shot him with an electric Taser, the suit said.
Guards dragged Montes from his cell to the showers, where they beat him again and made him dress in underwear several sizes too small to humiliate him in front of other inmates, the suit said.
At some point, the correctional deputies strapped Montes to a restraint chair and placed a mask over his head, despite Montes’ screams that he could not breathe, the suit said.